First Solemn High Mass of Rev. Thomas P. Lynch, June 10, 1934
Courtesy of Thomas Lynch

Death Without Ceremony

We need time and space to grieve. The pandemic denies us this.

My father’s uncle, Thomas Patrick Lynch, got the Spanish flu. He was 12 years old, the youngest son of Irish immigrants who’d escaped the perennial potato blights, political mischief, and poverty of County Clare in the late 19th century. They’d found their way to Jackson, Michigan, where what would eventually be heralded as the “largest walled prison in the world” was a constant work in progress through the Gilded Age, providing plenty of work for Irish laborers. Thomas’s father, my great-grandfather, worked his way up from grunt work to janitor to uniformed guard.

Thomas, for whom I’d later be named, survived the scourge, and his mother proclaimed that God had spared him for a “special calling.” Thus, though he remained wheezy and croupy into his young adulthood, he entered the seminary and became a priest of the Holy Roman, Irish-American, Catholic Church in 1934.

The panoramic photo of his first “solemn high” Mass that year, taken outside St. John’s Church in Jackson, down Cooper Street from the prison, remains a fixture in our family households in Michigan and in Moveen, on the coast of County Clare, whence his people came. Vocations follow famines, the Irish bromide holds; no less pandemics, truth be told.

It was a watershed moment in our family history.

Photographs hold their moments in time, free of the future or the past, and through the generations, time brings these moments into truer focus. Among the housebound multitudes, I imagine that many like me—alone on a lake with a dog—fill some of their quarantined hours rummaging through old photographs and the stories they tell.

The child seated in the center of the photograph of that day is my father, Edward Lynch Jr., in knickers, ankle socks, and saddle shoes. He is 10 years old and seated beside his parents. In two years, he’ll meet my mother in the fifth grade at St. Francis de Sales, where he’ll play right tackle on the football team. After graduating in ’42, he’ll enlist in the Marines and end up in combat in the South Pacific and return to marry Rosemary O’Hara, with whom he’ll raise me and my eight siblings. In the photo he is poised to become the man he’d be, the founder of our family firm of undertakers in Southeast Michigan.

Two days after this photo is taken, the freshly minted priest will be sent by his bishop in Detroit to work for the bishop in New Mexico, in hopes that the high, dry air of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains will extend the useful ministry of the sickly young survivor of that horrible flu. He is stationed at the parish of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe in Taos, and rides the circuits between San Geronimo in Taos Pueblo and the Spanish American churches that the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe will make famous. He dispenses baptisms, forgiveness, Communion, and extreme unction to the faithful. He teaches the Native American boys to play baseball. He marries and buries, christens and catechizes, as curates do.

Two years and two months later, he dies of influenza and pneumonia in Santa Fe. The angel of death that passed over him as a boy returns to take him as a man. The bishop has his body prepared and boxed for shipment home by train as freight marked C.O.D. The corpse is collected from the depot by agents of the Catholic mortuary in Jackson.

Thus it is to the Desnoyer Funeral Home that my grandfather goes to make arrangements for his brother’s burial. For reasons unknown to anyone now, he takes his 12-year-old son along. While my grandfather and Mr. Desnoyer discuss boxes, flowers, and fees, my father wanders through the funeral home until he comes to a room at the back of the house where, looking through a door slightly ajar, he espies white-shirted men in black trousers and striped gray ties, dressing the body in liturgical vestments on a long porcelain table. Then, wordlessly, as if by grim routine, they gather up the dead man’s body in their arms and sidestep their slow way toward a casket. They lower him into a sort of repose. They place his biretta in the corner and pin a crucifix in the middle of the open lid, adjust the green chasuble, string a rosary around his anointed hands, then turn to see the boy in the doorway.

My father will ever after trace his resolve to become an undertaker to this moment in the first week of August in 1936.

“Why?” we’d always ask him when he’d retell his story. “Why didn’t you decide to be a priest?”

“A priest?” he’d say, not one for metaphor or irony. “The priest was dead.”

Thomas Patrick Lynch (right), Santa Fe, 1935
The author’s great-uncle, Thomas Patrick Lynch (right), survived the Spanish flu as a boy and became a priest. A year after this picture was taken in 1935, in Santa Fe, he died of influenza and pneumonia. (Courtesy of Thomas Lynch)

They are all dead now: the priest and the bishops, my father and mother, their father and mother, and all the fathers and mothers in the photo in its frame. After all the projections and demographics—the charts of bell curves and their contingencies, shaped like tsunamis and hillocks, wee breasts and bottom lines—the numbers on mortality are really convincing, hovering as they do around, well, more or less exactly 100 percent.

“Death steals everything,” wrote Jim Harrison, the poet, fictionist, and gourmand, before he died writing a poem four springtimes ago, “except our stories.”

When the dead priest’s father, Tomás Lynch, left the coastal townland of Moveen in 1890, to chance his future in a place called Michigan, he stopped at the parish graveyard, Moyarta, at the mouth of the River Shannon in Carrigaholt, to say goodbye, to pray at his dead mother’s grave. Still buoyed by the “American wake” that his siblings and neighbors and aged father had given him the night before (they knew emigration was a kind of death, a disappearance from which there’d be no return), he might not have noticed the deep scar of a trench behind him. It was a long tear deep in the greensward in which, 40 years earlier, those dead of the famine—felled by starvation or fever, or both—had reached such numbers that they overwhelmed even the Irish appetite for wakes and funerals. These famine dead were swung into the open pit without witness or rubric, prayer or pipers, eulogy or obituary. No roses were tossed in their grave as emblems of mourners letting go, but rather shovels of quicklime to hasten the erasure of corruptible and possibly contagious flesh.

The fear of death, of ceasing to be, includes the fear that our stories will die with us, and won’t be told or will be told incorrectly. Or that they will be overwhelmed by what erased us from time—famine or pestilence or the horrors of war—so that our lives and times are not one-of-a-kind, but are one of the many and meaningless, nameless and nonspecific elements of a collective terror: a plague, blight, genocide, or bombing, a historic event that buries our individual, personal histories. How unimaginable that our deaths could go unremarked on and unremarkable.

Among the catalog of pandemic terrors is that such killers undermine our triumphalist sense of American exceptionalism, along with our belief that money and talent can fix any trouble. To a virus, we humans are all the same. Our nation, like some of us, has more money than time. Yet the more we endeavor to deny the pandemic’s scope, the more likely the scourge may be to deny us both.

By getting the dead where they need to go—to ground or fire, tomb or sea, whatever abyss we consign them to—the living get where they need to be: to the edge of a life we will live without them. Such are the dual-purpose dynamics of a good funeral. And good grief is a sort of romance in reverse, by which the heartbroken seek to retrieve the heart’s investments in the ones we lose. Such “grief work” takes time and large-muscle enactments of holding on and letting go, shoulder and shovel work, witness and vigil work. It is no cakewalk.

Victorians allowed for extended periods of mourning, and their culture allowed for “proper respects”—the pause and tender patience granted the bereaved. The current emergency disallows all but the most needful duty to burn or bury the dead on a schedule advanced by a witless virus. Adding to our nation’s annual death rate by numbers we cannot accurately project or prevent, the coronavirus overwhelms not only our medical, financial, social, and religious infrastructures, but our mortuary ones as well. For many mourners, the postponed and bodiless obsequies will make the lonely deaths only more unmooring—like trying to understand love when the bride is absent from her nuptials; or initiation and new life, naming and claiming, when the baby is missing from the baptism.

Faith, we are told, inoculates against fear. We are all in this together, the president says. I wonder. Though I was named after my father’s dead uncle, my faith has been shaken into a provisional pose. Rather than serve a bishop or church, I chose, like my father, “to serve the living by caring for the dead.” Some days it seems obvious that a loving God’s in charge; others it seems we are entirely alone.

If death steals everything except our stories, pandemics—like famines and holocausts—do their best not to grant us the time it takes to pay respects, to get our story right, to get our story told, to share the story with family and friends, to tell them that what took us in the end may have been COVID-19, but that fact is only a footnote, not our story. What really takes our breath away is the beauty of being, and the beauty of being of the ones we love.

This article appears in the June 2020 print edition with the headline “What Takes Our Breath Away.”